August 07, 2020
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Repackaging Jinnah

A revisionist biography for the West sinks on home turf

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Repackaging Jinnah
Jinnah, Pakistan And Islamic Identity: The Search For Saladin
By Akbar S. Ahmed
Oxford University Press (Pakistan) Rs 795; Pages: 274
ANTHROPOLOGIST Akbar S. Ahmed seeks the middle ground between two poles of argument in Pakistan: the secularist gloss that Jinnah had wanted a secular state, and the ideological canon that he had envisioned a religious one. He has attracted the animosity of both. He seeks to prove that Jinnah was neither a fundamentalist nor a secularist, and has written a 'revisionist' book which should become interesting if his detractors shed their prejudices.

Akbar is a Pakistani British resident who wants to bridge the Christian-Muslim divide in Britain even though expatriate Islamist zealots reject him out of hand. He also wants to reintroduce Jinnah to Western audiences as an acceptable figure by undoing some of the injustice done to him by Attenborough's film Gandhi. Akbar's own film on Jinnah was destroyed by his detractors in Pakistan. Secularists and Islamists attacked his script in unison, forcing the government to switch off the funding even after he had repeatedly changed the original script to please his critics. Finally nothing was left of what he had planned. Had the film not been a cinematic disaster, the West probably would have ignored a non-exotic Jinnah in any case. Despite all this, Akbar's effort can't be ignored. He has criticised the faking of Jinnah in Pakistan and his equally unfair demonisation in India.

It is finally Pakistan, not India, which has failed to digest an 'outsider' Jinnah. Akbar compares him with Saladin, the 'outsider' Kurd whom the Arabs accepted as their saviour against the Crusades. Jinnah drew worshipful support from north India, but his family came from Gujarat, from a village only 20 km from Gandhi's own. He matured in Bombay among a community of Indians who must qualify as the true citizens of India. People like Dadabhai Nauroji and Gokhale formed his 'outsider' world-view.

The Muslim-majority regions of Punjab and Bengal resisted the politics of his Muslim League. For north Indian Muslims, divided between a pro-Congress clergy and Muslim League, he had to transform his identity. From Mohamedali, he became Mohamed Ali; he changed his patronym from Jinnah Bhai to Jinnah, and dropped the family name Poonja altogether. He was secular to the core and therefore found it easy to turn from Aga Khani to Shia, and then from Shia to Sunni.

Jinnah's Bombay friend M.C. Chagla, a villain in Pakistan for reporting in his memoirs that Jinnah ate ham sandwiches and drank wine, went through the same transformation. A judge of the Bombay High Court and later India's ambassador to the US, Chagla never let on what the initials 'M.C.' stood for. He changed his name from Merchant to Chagla early in life, but he hid his Muslim name behind 'M.C.' to make himself more acceptable. His popular autobiography not only suppresses his own name but also the names of his Muslim parents. Pakistan completely ignored Jinnah's uncle Nathoo Poonja probably because Urdu has an insulting idiom based on the name. This February, when Nathoo's great-grandson was killed by the police in Karachi, the inspector-general swore that the boy was no relative of Jinnah.

The author faults Jinnah's biographer Wolpert for being put off by Jinnah's 11 August 1947 'secular' speech at the Constituent Assembly. Wolpert thought that Jin-nah had suddenly reverted to his 1916 identity when he declared to the Assembly that Pakistan would be a secular state. But Akbar ignores the Pakistani historian Shariful Mujahid who thought that Jinnah was infirm of mind when he made his 11 August speech. The author's verdict is that Jinnah was neither secular nor fundamentalist, but that his vision of Pakistan was 'vague, meaning different things to different people'. He quotes another statement of January 25, 1948, in which Jinnah promised that Pakistan would be run according to Sharia, but fails to elucidate what Jinnah and Pakistan's national poet Muhammad Iqbal would have meant by Sharia.

Jinnah probably thought Sharia to be a PIB general guideline for the Muslims; Iqbal in his famous Lectures clearly indicated that the Islamic penal code, like the cutting of hands, couldn't be enforced in the 20th century. Jinnah would have been horrified to learn that under Islam the testimony of a Pakistani woman is treated as half that of a man.Today, under Sharia, non-Muslims and women in Pakistan have virtually lost their fundamental rights.

The strength of the book is that it tries to tackle all the controversies surrounding Jinnah, yet there is the crucial question of Jinnah's relationship with his trusted lieutenant and prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, which he skirts. While he accepts Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada as a reliable source, he ignores Pirzada's revelation that Jinnah had lost trust in Liaquat after 1947, and that Jinnah's 'secular' speech at the Assembly was nearly blacked out in the press by the prime minister.

Akbar notices that Pakistan's historians have ignored Jinnah's family, specially his daughter Dina Wadia after she rebelled and married a non-Muslim; but he himself ignores the descendants of Jinnah's uncles and sisters, most of whom are still living in Karachi. Had he interviewed them as he did Dina Wadia and Mountbatten's daughters, he would have fathomed another side to Jinnah and the state he created.

Jinnah is a challenging book. Finally it doesn't matter that he has failed to please all kinds of Pakistanis who fight over the true legacy of the Founder of their 'insuffi-ciently imagined' homeland.

(The writer is editor, Friday Times, Lahore.)

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